Bill Cosby Ebonics Essay

Last year, Bill Cosby rattled the race status quo when he called upon poor blacks to discipline their kids and “hold their end in this deal.” Now, quick as you can say, “Sign the book contract on the dotted line,” Michael Eric Dyson, University of Pennsylvania humanities professor and influential race intellectual, has responded with Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? And oh, how dismaying that response is. Dyson depicts Cosby as the embodiment of the black middle class’s betrayal of its less advantaged brothers and sisters. But it is his own condescending analysis that represents an elite betrayal of the ghetto poor.

According to Dyson, Cosby’s take on the black poor is not simply wrong; nor is it just another example of the old-fashioned, up-by-the-bootstraps exhortation that has echoed in poor churches throughout American history. Rather, it is a recrudescence of an age-old class war between the “Ghettocracy” (poor blacks) and the “Afristocracy”—the black elite that includes “lawyers, physicians, civil rights leaders” (noticeably absent in his list is university professors). The Afristocracy, Dyson explains, has long held its nose at the déclassé antics of the poor, a distaste that turns middle-class blacks into “accomplices to white panic and surveillance.” Cosby’s criticism, Dyson contends, shows him to be yet another of these self-hating race traitors.

What makes this analysis surprising are the airs that Dyson himself puts on throughout Is Bill Cosby Right? Cosby is a mere comedian, he sniffs, not someone “practiced or articulate in matters of public negotiation with the subtleties, nuances and complexities of racial rhetoric.” Professor Dyson, on the other hand, will “offer more sophisticated and subtle analyses of cultural traits and racial behaviors that have their roots in antecedent practices.” “This book,” he assures us, “is my attempt to unpack those issues with the clarity and complexity they demand.”

But Dyson’s grandiose postmodernism doesn’t lend itself to clarity. Consider such lucidities as “the strategies of black identity promote a provisional response to the stages, styles, and status of black identity,” and “the aesthetic ecology in which [black youth] are nurtured surely contains poisonous weeds and quicksand, glimpsed in sexist tirades on wax and the hunger to make violence erotic.” Moreover, though Dyson promises logic in contrast to Cosby’s emotionalism, he rarely refers to the comedian’s crusade without using charged words like “vicious” or “relentless.” Some Cosby supporters defend him by noting his philanthropy for black causes, but, says Dyson, that’s “like saying it’s okay to rape a young lady because you’ve given a million dollars to a women’s college.” The insinuation, if not the logic, is clear: Cosby is a sociopath.

As for the substance of Dyson’s “complex” argument, it’s nothing you haven’t heard hundreds of times before. Packed into this tendentious essay, it certainly isn’t going to convince skeptics. The cause of black poverty is structural. Jobs have fled the inner city. Discrimination keeps poor blacks from getting the few jobs left. Cosby accuses parents of failing to support their children’s education, but, counters Dyson, the real problem is that inner-city schools don’t get enough funds. Crime and family breakdown are not unique to the poor; rich people, including Cosby himself, also make poor moral choices.

But worse—far worse—than Dyson’s self-important boilerplate is the way he digs into his Foucauldian cosmetic bag to prettify behavior sure to perpetuate the poverty he supposedly deplores. Cosby has blasted “people with the hat on backwards, pants down around the crack.” But pants down around the crack are a good thing, counters Dyson, since they represent

“resistance to convention.” Cosby criticizes kids who sound like ignorant “knuckleheads.” Once again, Cosby has it wrong, says Dyson. Ebonics “grows out of the fierce linguisticality of black existence,” and in general, hip-hop “summons the richest response in the younger generation to questions of identity and suffering.” Boiled down, Dyson’s advice for the poor amounts to this: dress like you just got out of Attica, wear your defiance on your sleeve, and don’t bother trying, since the system is stacked against you anyway.

Cosby’s approach is quite different. He doesn’t cite studies or deconstruct. He simply exhorts parents, in the tradition of the uplifting revivalist, to do the things that will focus their kids on school and prepare them for better lives. The reason that thousands of people—many, if not most, poor—have lined up to hear him is that, while his advice may not be complex, it is right.

You can’t say the same about Dyson’s implicit counsel. Still, the professor is right about one thing: this is a class war between the elites and the poor. What he doesn’t get is which side he’s on.

I was shocked to recently learn about the Oakland, California school board’s 1996 decision to classify Ebonics as the official language of its African American students. At the mere age of four, I was ignorant to the political and social controversy this decision stirred up nationwide. Now, at 19, I can understand the problematic implications such a decision leads to.

We’ve heard the term Ebonics everywhere in the media, as it was popularized by the mid-90s in this Oakland school board decision. It was used instead of the term Black English and is a combination of the words ebony and phonics. We all know what Ebonics refers to – the black vernacular that many judge as improper or bad English.


One common misconception about the Oakland school board decision is that the intention was not to teach students how to speak in Ebonics, but rather use it as a bridge to understanding Standard English. They found that a major reason for African American student’s poor academic performance was a language interference.


In an essay by Bill Cosby, he satirizes what the world would be like if Ebonics became a standard language. Cosby refers to this version of English as “Igno-Ebonics”. He jokes that if a young black teenager was pulled over by the cops, instead of saying “Why did you stop me, officer?” he would say, “Lemme ax you…” leading the officer to believe he was in danger and being threatened.


While the situations Cosby sets up in his 1997 essay Elements of Igno-Ebonics Style may gain laughs from some audiences, Cosby is actually missing the mark about what the Oakland school board’s intentions were.


The Oakland school board wanted to use contrastive analysis to teach students that what may be okay to say at home and outside of school isn’t proper in written forms. Defenders of contrastive analysis say that students grow confused and frustrated when teachers ridicule them for their language. When the children go home and hear their “form” of English spoken by their parents and friends, they may begin to think all the people around them are speaking incorrectly and in turn will become ashamed of their language.


To some extent, this reasoning provided by contrastive analysis defenders makes sense. If a teacher is ridiculing you for speaking the way you and your family speak to each other, frustration may grow in the student about who is “right”. In some students, this may stir up disdain for teachers and education in general. Other students may become embarrassed or ashamed of their dialect.



In theory, contrastive analysis allows teachers to permit Ebonics in the classroom but emphasizes that the language is not “proper” for written exams, papers, etc. Teachers can use Ebonics as a bridge to help students “translate” the vernacular into Standard English.


In my opinion, the Oakland school board took Ebonics too far by declaring it was a language, not a dialect. In the original resolution, they claimed the language was derived from West African and Congo languages and therefore was genetic in African Americans. Once again, Oakland took this too far. The real intention in declaring Ebonics a language and not a dialect was for economic purposes. If Ebonics was considered a foreign language, it could receive more federal funding.


So while the idea of helping students understand that their language and grammar isn’t wrong seemed decent, economics pushed the envelope too far. Language is not genetic. It is cultural.


This decision was problematic to the extent that students who believed they were always speaking English, yet constantly told it wasn’t “proper” are now being told they aren’t actually speaking English. Following this line of thought, if Ebonics isn’t proper, and it isn’t English, it must be some “lesser” language than English.


I don’t have a problem with the idea of contrastive analysis by showing students how African American Vernacular English is different than Standard English. I think it is beneficial for students to learn the differences rather than be scolded for one and pushed to learn the other without learning exactly what they’re doing “wrong”. However, calling Ebonics a genetic disposition in African Americans can create a feeling of “otherness”. If this is genetic, are African American students who don’t speak in Ebonics not genuinely African American? You can see where this genetic language argument ultimately fails.

It is  important to note that by now, the term Ebonics has garnered negative connotations and isn’t a preferred term. Linguists use the proper term African American Vernacular English.

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